Erikson (1968) hypothesized that adolescent identity formation is embedded within the social contexts of which the individual is a part. More specifically, social environments that are warm, supportive, and encouraging of adolescent independence are thought to be conducive to the successful resolution of the identity crisis stage. Perhaps the most salient social environment during the identity crisis is school, because it is in this context that young people spend the majority of their time. Also, for most adolescents, school is of primary psychological importance. One's ability to obtain gainful employment and a desirable standard of living as an adult is largely dependent upon one's success in school. It could be expected, therefore, that the school environment would be a particularly important influence on an individual's ability to successfully resolve the identity crisis.
According to Erikson, the resolution of the identity crisis within a socially supportive environment is significant because it results in the ascendence of psychological strengths, or ego virtues. Ego virtues, in turn, are thought to provide the basis for success, happiness, and fulfillment. For adolescents, then, the ascendence of ego virtues through the successful resolution of the identity crisis should produce positive outcomes that are relevant to their unique stage in life and the social contexts which are important for them. Positive outcomes in school may be a salient outcome of the ascendence of ego virtues. This study attempts to test these claims regarding the importance of the school environment to the resolution of the identity crisis, ego virtues, and academic success.
Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory of development (Erikson, 1959) has been critically important to the development of research on adolescent and young adult identity development. His ideas regarding the way in which a young person negotiates an individual identity within a socio-historical context have become the foundation upon which the majority of adolescent identity research in the past fifty years has been based. According to Erikson, successful identity formation is a careful balancing act between the self and the other. This process is thought to begin in infancy, where, in the context of a safe and trusting relationship with a parental figure, the child comes to know himself or herself as a completely distinct entity in the world who, at the same time, is loved and valued by others. During childhood the process continues, as the child learns to identify with his or her parents through the imitation of socially acceptable behaviors.
Adolescence is considered the most crucial period of identity formation, wherein individuals are afforded a socially sanctioned opportunity to explore different ideals (Adams et al., 2001). It is during this developmental phase that young people experience periods of exploration wherein they must choose for themselves--in accordance with their own interests, goals, talents, and the standards of their social milieu--the childhood identifications they wish to adopt and those they prefer to discard (Kroger, 1996). For Erikson, identity is best characterized on a continuum, with healthy outcomes being represented on one end of the scale by identity achievement (commitment to a self-determined set of identified ideals, goals, and values), and dysfunctional outcomes represented on the opposite end by identity diffusion (the inability to develop and commit to a set of self-identified ideals (Kroger, 1996; Schwartz, 2001).
Erikson was especially concerned with the role of social contexts in identity synthesis, and he theorized that the environment of an individual is an integral component of one's ability to resolve the identity versus identity confusion crisis. More specifically, Erikson (1968) posited that socially supportive environments, where young people feel they are unique, appreciated, and autonomous, are thought to be optimal contexts in which identity achievement can occur (Adams & Marshall, 1996). Erikson also posited that an adolescent must select identity commitments based upon "socially possible faces and voices" (Adams & Marshall, 1996, p. 431), and he stated "the historical era in which he [a youth] lives offers only a limited number of socially meaningful models for workable combinations of identification fragments" (Erikson, 1968, p. 53). One of Erikson's most important insights was that all intrapsychic functions take place within a social and historical context, and that identity achievement could transpire only if an adolescent's chosen commitments and identifications were valued and legitimized within his or her particular culture (Penuel & Wertsch, 1995).
It is imperative for adolescents to be surrounded by individuals who offer support for their process of exploration and affirmation for their chosen identity commitments. Indeed, research on family processes and identity formation would lend support to this notion, as it has been found that young people whose parents encourage appropriate levels of exploration, within a warm and supportive environment, are more likely than other adolescents to report identity achievement in university (Matheis & Adams, 2004; Berzonsky, 2004).
It has been suggested that social contexts outside the family may also be particularly important during adolescence, for it is during this period that most individuals experience a process of separation and individuation from parents (Grotevant & Cooper, 1986). The social context in which young people spend the majority of their time during adolescence is the school. Researchers have found that the relational contexts of educational …